It is timely that the government is drafting a Technical and Vocational Education and Training blueprint that will guide and influence reforms in the sector for the next 15 years. Despite the first vocational training course becoming available by 1965, and major reforms taking place since the early 2000s, issues with the quality of those graduating out of the institutes persist, and a blue collar job remains unappealing to our youth.
Besides the low social status, a low economic relevance is also associated with a blue collar job in Bhutan. This is surprising given the number of expatriate workers you see us depending on to fix everything from a leaking pipe to constructing a massive hydropower dam.
The demand is there and so is the money. For instance, an expatriate worker can earn up to Nu 50,000 just to scrape off the old paint and add a new coat for a single story bungalow in Thimphu. Fixing a tap can cost up to Nu 1,000. The end quality is usually nothing exceptional.
By having our training institutes produce graduates who focus not just on the basic or required skills but also on that extra care for quality and details, perhaps, demand for local labour may increase and subsequently, their rates as well.
If Bhutanese youth can provide better quality end work than expatriates, charge and earn higher, then perhaps, this stigma about getting your hands dirty can be overcome, similar to how the sector is viewed in the West. When the pay is right, as evident from stories coming back from Australia and the US, Bhutanese are willing to work so called dirty jobs from sweeping streets to laying bricks.
The same should apply here, especially with the thousands of youth who enter the job market every year. The scenario is changing, choosing to remain unemployed rather than take up a blue collar job may not be an option in a few years, unless of course, you were born with a silver spoon.
The blue print must ensure our training institutes produce above average quality. Perhaps, one of the ways to ensure this is to introduce and allow youth to experiment with vocational occupations early on in the formal education system. At a higher standard or class, the youth can be given the option to digress away from pursuing a traditional education and opt for a vocational occupation they may have discovered a passion for during their experimentation.
But it is important that youth who choose to opt for a vocational stream are not written off from further education if they desire to pursue it. A vocational stream should hold equal weight to a traditional stream. There should not be a problem in ensuring this equal weight as our policy makers who hold white collar jobs, continue to assure the youth that a blue collar job is equally respectable.